Podcast

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?

In high-jeopardy stories, the size of the motivation must match the size of the problem. The bigger the problem, the bigger the motivation required for the hero to tackle it, and the bigger the risk of not tackling it. Ideally, the reward for doing it and the risk of not doing it will both be high. 

It’s not hard to toss in a few “I have no other options” and “this opportunity is huge” scenes near the beginning of your story. Writers avoid this because they believe these scenes are overused. But everybody uses them for a good reason. Stories—especially big, exciting stories—won’t work without them. Without big motivation, we won’t buy it when the heroes tackle big problems.

Let’s start by looking at an exception that proves the rule: In children’s stories, there is often very little jeopardy. The problems are small, so they can be tackled by heroes with small motivations. Fred's, Daphne's, and Velma's motivation on Scooby-Doo is entirely capricious: “We heard about a mystery, so we decided to solve it.” That’s enough for them, because nobody ever gets hurt, so they never have reason to reconsider their casual decision.

But in adult stories, things are going to get tough, and the hero will need a big reason to stay on the job, or else your audience won’t believe that the hero will stick with it. That’s why your hero’s motivation should have these three qualities:

Strong. Too little motivation is never good. For a while, it seemed like every comedic film was motivated by two characters making a casual bet: “I bet I can transform a bookworm into a prom queen,” “I’ll bet you that I can go forty days without sex,” “I bet that I can get that guy to dump me in ten dates,” or whatever.

The problem with these stories is obvious from the premise: A bet is a weak motivation. Heroes may stick with it through early complications because they’re up for a challenge, but if things get emotionally dangerous for them, if they have to change themselves in order to succeed, they won’t do it. It was just a bet. So either the story is not going to substantially change the heroes (which is something that always needs to happen), or the heroes will go through hell and really change, all for the sake of a casual bet—and that is totally unbelievable.

Simple. But too much motivation is just as bad. Let’s look at some examples from the heyday of overmotivation, the late eighties. In Lethal Weapon 2, Mel Gibson has a huge amount of motivation to catch criminals:
  • First and foremost, there’s his civic duty. 
  • Second, there’s his paycheck. It is his job, after all. 
  • Third, he’s suicidal over the death of his wife, so he’ll do anything that will put him in the path of a bullet. 
  • Fourth, he’s the one cop who cares about the victims, damn it! 
  • The bad guys also happen to be the personification of South African apartheid! 
  • But that’s still not enough, because these guys then kill Gibson’s new girlfriend! 
  • Then, just to top it all off, one of them is taunting Gibson and suddenly reveals: “Oh, by the way, we also were part of that group that killed your wife all those years ago!” 
Now that’s a lot of motivation!

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie is another example. Everybody knows Batman’s motivation. It’s one of the strongest, clearest motivations any character has ever had. A criminal gunned down his parents. He blames all criminals, so now he hunts them down one by one. His personal pain has become society’s gain. But in 1989, fighting for society was considered a sucker's bet, so the Joker accidentally reveals that, by an extraordinary coincidence, he was also the guy who killed Batman’s parents, all those years ago.

So what’s wrong with heroes being supermotivated? The problem is that it makes them less heroic. Saving the city from a criminal is a heroic goal, but now he’s just on a revenge mission, and that’s not heroic at all. He’s overmotivated, so he becomes less interesting.

How on earth do you provide a huge motivation without overmotivating? Here’s a warning I got from my mom: “Whenever someone gives you a lot of reasons, none of them is the real reason.” Don’t increase the quantity of motivation; improve the quality of motivation.

Piling on additional motivations is bad, but don’t be afraid to lift your hero’s primary motivation all the way to the stratosphere. If your hero gets to page 70 and says, “Ugh, I’m done. This problem isn’t worth dealing with anymore,” you should definitely listen to that, but you shouldn’t have a new motivation walk in the door at that late date.

Don’t multiply the motivation; simplify it. Mom was right: Giving too many reasons invalidates them all. It feels desperate and unfocused, and it makes the hero seem weak and vacillating, jerked this way and that by outside events.

Revealed Early On. If you read a lot of work by aspiring writers, one thing you repeatedly see is stories in which the hero’s goal and/or primary motivation are mysterious until the final act. This never works.

Certainly heroes can have an air of mystery. In The Great Gatsby, the backstory of the title character is a big mystery and comes out very slowly, but we always know what he wants. He wants Daisy. He wants to make it to her dock with the green light.

Aspiring writers know they’re supposed to create an air of mystery, so they figure the audience will enjoy solving the mystery of what the main character wants and why. But in fact, the audience hates to have to do that. By the time the story gets going, we demand to know enough about the main character’s goals and motivations to follow along and engage with the story.
 
Rulebook Casefile: Selfless Motivation in Bridge of Spies

One element of my story checklist that has gotten some pushback is my insistence that the hero’s motivation must be not-selfless, at least initially, and even possibly all the way through. To my mind, there’s only one difference between a well-written villain and a well-written hero: The villain pursues a self-interested goal with which we can empathize but not sympathize, while the hero pursues a self-interested goal with which we can both empathize and sympathize. 

Can’t heroes just selflessly pursue heroism for heroism’s sake right from the beginning? No, because it’s totally alien to human nature, and never convincing. Bridge of Spies ably demonstrates this.

The scene that introduces Tom Hanks is the movie’s best, and promises a great movie that never arrives: Our hero is at his dayjob as a hard-nosed insurance lawyer, denying a large claim using legalistic pedantry in a cold-blooded-but-friendly rapidfire monologue. The hope is generated that Hanks will finally grow some teeth, for once, but no, he soon falls back into dopey good guy mode and gums his way through the rest of the movie.

It didn’t have to be that way. Here’s a quick summary of the movie:
  • Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is arrested, and the judge randomly selects a respected non-criminal lawyer (Hanks as James Donovan) to “defend” him, assuming that he’ll give no pushback. Instead, Donovan gives a surprisingly strong defense and refuses to push his client to work with the CIA. Abel is convicted, but Hanks saves him from execution. A few years later, the Soviets shoot down American spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers so the CIA has Donovan negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers. As they brief him for the trade, they advise him that the Soviets may try to keep Powers and offer up instead an American student who got stuck on the wrong side of the Wall. Donovan suddenly decides that the kid deserves to get out, too, and defies the CIA by insisting that the Soviets turn over both prisoners in return for Abel.
This is all well and good, and it could have made for a fine movie, but where it falls apart is motivation. In both halves, Hanks is defying the CIA and everyone else in a way that seemingly puts his country at risk, in order to “stand up for the little guy.” Why? Because galldurnit, it’s the right thing to do. The Donovan we met in that first monologue instantly disappears, and instead we get speech after speech about American ideals. His motivation is simple: he’s simply doing what any right-thinking American would do.

Spielberg, as always, refuses to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of Donovan’s actions, but more importantly, he fails to acknowledge the character’s volatility. Yes, Donovan’s taking a stand for the little guy in both cases, but he’s also acting out of spite, and it’s that sense of spite that’s sorely lacking.

Donovan has spent his life screwing over accident victims, and so the judge thought that he would be willing to go along with the show-trial, but he underestimates Donovan. Does he underestimate Donovan’s American idealism? Of course not, he underestimates Donovan’s obsessive need to win. Not just win, in fact, but to humiliate, as he does in that first scene. He himself feels humiliated by his new role, and he won’t put up with that. When he ends up with a loss on the books, he smarts about it until he gets a chance to settle things with the CIA, by not only springing his guy but defying their orders again and saving another little guy they want to throw under the bus. Yes, he may incidentally be doing the right thing, and he may use “America the Great” speeches to accomplish that, but ultimately, this is revenge.

But all of this rich subtext is simply ignored by Spielberg and Hanks, both of whom sell the hell out those catch-in-the-throat speeches as if they were convincing. They earnestly present a selfless, generically idealistic hero, ignoring the version that would be more compelling, more believable, more ironic, and, ultimately, more genuinely heroic: one in which our hero just so happens to do the right thing by pursuing his own self-interest in a uniquely volatile way.

By divorcing Donovan’s actions from his personal feelings, Spielberg puts himself in an impossible position. Why does Donovan care about doing the right thing by Abel, if not for the sake of spite? Well, Spielberg just has to make Abel a likable guy, so we get some cutesy dialogue between them. But wait, why does Donovan later take a stand for some student he’s never met? Here Spielberg falls back on that lamest of all possible justifications: Donovan hears just enough about the student to say that he reminds him of someone else he does care about (his assistant back home).

Never, ever, ever, do this. People do decent, heroic things every day, but they don’t do them solely out of their passion for decency and heroism. With a few exceptions (see the comments), heroes are simply people whose self-interest happens to coincide with the public interest. As a writer, your job is to make that self-interest come alive, because it is the heart of what makes us human.

Rulebook Casefile: Non-Selfless Motivation in Dallas Buyer’s Club

I’ve always felt that he was a potentially great actor, so I was happy when I heard the buzz that this would be the “Year of McConaughey”…but then I saw Mud first and felt like I was in Bizarro-World: now I was the one saying that his performance was too pretty-boy, too charismatic, and too reliant on gee-shucks tricks, turning what was supposed to be a scary homeless outlaw into a big old sexy teddy bear. So now I came to this movie with my guard up…which just made his utterly-vanity-free performance all the more impressive. Not only did he ruin his looks, but he played this reptilian scheming bigot without a single “love-me” tic…which just meant that America was finally given a chance to fall in love with McConaughey on our terms, not his.
Rulebook Casefile: Un-Selfless Motivation in Silence of the Lambs

In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is a straight-up stand-up-and-cheer hero, and audiences love her unreservedly, but, like real heroes, she’s far from selfless.

She’s not a pro bono volunteer at the FBI, it’s her career, and there’s no doubt what her motivation is for most of the movie: advancement. She follows instructions to the letter, lets her boss hold her back or spur her forward, and genuinely respects him. She doesn’t burn with rage at “technicalities”, or society’s failings, or the thought of “injustice” as an abstract concept.

This was especially notable because there had been a lot of cop movies in the previous twenty years in which the cop was advised to think about his career, only to angrily retort that this wasn’t about his career, dammit, this was about the victims! Clarice feels for the victim, but she doesn’t pretend that she’s the only one who does, and she clearly knows that the victim’s loved ones must be kept away from a case with a ten foot pole, because they’ll just screw everything up.
Rulebook Casefile: Motivation and Sympathy in Talladega Nights

Guys like Luke Wilson and Ron Livingstone thought that they would have long healthy careers playing “everyman” roles in comedies, but they rarely work today, because everyman comedies fell out of  fashion. We no longer want our comedic heroes to be the calm at the eye of the storm…we want them to be lightning rods.

In most modern comedies, the main character straddles the dividing line between “laugh with” and “laugh at.”  Will Farrell in Talladega Nights is a good example of how to do it right: He’s an outrageously broad character that we can nevertheless (just barely) believe in and care about, with some real world problems (like all empathetic jerk characters, he has a crappy dad) and a satisfying arc. 

As part of that arc, the moviemakers bring Farrell from the top of the NASCAR world to rock bottom by the middle of the movie.  They could have had his place get eclipsed by any young upstart, but they maximized his motivation with a funnier and more humiliating choice: the instrument of his downfall is a cocky gay Frenchman (played by a very funny Sacha Baron Cohen), fresh off the formula one circuit, who is openly contemptuous of all Farrell stands for.

We like Farrell enough (“laugh with”) that we enjoy seeing him succeed, but we find him so comically insufferable (“laugh at”) that we wouldn’t mind seeing him get knocked down a peg, especially if it takes the form of an ironic punishment for his unexamined bigotries.  When he fights Baron Cohen, we’re going to laugh no matter who beats up who. 

But this becomes a problem in the second half.  After Farrell hits bottom and becomes a better, humbler person, we start genuinely rooting for him …but we still don’t want to see him humiliate the gay Frenchman.  Choosing a character that Farrell was bigoted against maximized his motivation, but the fact that he now might have to affirm those bigotries in order to triumph threatens to open up a big sympathy hole. 

The movie finds a far-fetched but  relatively elegant solution to this problem.  Before the last big race, Farrell confronts Baron Cohen in person, and Baron Cohen reveals a secret: He has wanted to retire for some time, but he can’t until he finds someone great enough to beat him fair and square.  He had hoped Farrell would be that person, but now he’s lost all respect for him and intends to beat him once and for all. 

This is somewhat silly, but it neatly snaps our sympathies back in line.  Baron Cohen will still go all out to win this race, but if Farrell wins, then they actually both win, since Baron Cohen gets the retirement with honor that he’s long desired.  It shows that the moviemakers knew what they were doing: without that artful cheat, they would have filled a motivation hole by digging themselves a sympathy hole.



Rulebook Casefile: Tintin’s Tiny Motivation

Another movie I finally got caught up this summer was Tintin. This was nowhere near as bad as John Carter or Green Lantern, but it was almost as disappointing, because in this case I’m a much bigger fan of the source material. What made it especially frustrating is that they picked three great books to adapt and they were very faithful, except for one small change in the sequence…which ruined everything.

The movie combined three Tintin graphic novels.  In the The Crab with the Golden Claws, boy reporter Tintin stows away on a freighter to expose some heroin smugglers (he’s a little more hardcore than the Hardy Boys) when he runs into a drunken lout named Captain Haddock, who has had his ship hijacked out from under him. They retake the ship, then go on a long adventure that takes them from ship to lifeboat, to seaplane, to desert, to army base. In the end, they break up the heroin ring, but Haddock is still battling his personal demons when the story ends.

The next book in the saga, The Secret of the Unicorn, begins with Tintin walking through a street market where he sees a model of a ship for sale. He instantly senses that it would help Haddock feel better, so he buys it…but he’s soon surrounded by shady characters who will pay any price to get the ship away from them. He won’t sell, since he bought it for his good friend.

Sure enough, Haddock has a connection to the ship: It’s a replica or one sailed by his ancestor. When they find a clue to a treasure inside the model, they’re off on another 2-book adventure, ending in Red Rackham’s Treasure. In the end, they find Haddock’s long-lost family fortune, which finally ends his troubles.

The screenwriters wisely chose the Haddock epic as the strongest hook to hang a Tintin movie on, and it made sense to streamline the adaptation by cutting out the tangentially-related heroin-smuggling plot. But they made a fatal error by moving the street market up to the first scene as the “inciting incident”.

This time, it’s the model that leads Tintin to be on that hijacked freighter where he meets Haddock. As soon as they meet, we get all the action scenes from the original trilogy of books… but they’re now meaningless.

What a difference a little motivation makes! In the books, it all made sense: in the first book, he’s an investigative reporter on the trail of a heroin ring. In the second, he’s trying to do a favor for the troubled man who saved his life. In the third, he helps that man restore his fortunes so that he can stop being a miserable drunk, and gets another good story in the process. What a hero!

In the movie, it all falls apart: he buys the model for no reason, then turns down the offers of money for no reason, then follows the clues he finds in the model for no reason. We hear people say that he’s a reporter, but he never mentions it, and he’s not tracking down a story…in fact, his only motivation seems to be to get Haddock’s treasure for himself. But if he needs money so badly, why didn’t he just accept the fortune he was offered in the first scene??

Now obviously, I’ve read tons of Tintin comics, so I know who he is…on the page. But even I am not going to walk into a movie theater and cut this character any slack. When the lights go out, all that matters is what’s on the screen. And even though I love the comics character, the movie character struck me as unmotivated, greedy, and ultimately loathsome. And all because they flipped the order of one sequence. I’ll say it again: Heroes can only solve huge problems if they have a huge motivation!
Straying from the Party Line: We don’t understand the hero’s goals in Casablanca 

The Potential Problem: We’re always at somewhat of an arm’s distance from Rick. We don’t meet until ten minutes into the movie, and then we can’t quite read him.  When Renault wonders about his past and beliefs, we wonder, too.  Does Rick want to leave Casablanca or not?  We don’t know.  When Ilsa comes back, does he want her back, or want to hurt her, or both?  Ultimately, this pays off in a very tricky climax, in which we are encouraged to misunderstand what the hero is doing for about ten minutes of screentime, and then be shocked that he is sending Ilsa away.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Certainly, yes.  This is a partially a tribute to Bogart (He does it again in our next movie), who excelled at playing appealing inscrutability.  After ten years on the Warner’s lot, they knew he could pull it off and he did.  Also, as with Bridesmaids, they knew that we would be more likely to forgive the hero his vacillations because he represented real world suffering and uncertainty.  It was easy to guess what he was going through, because the country was crippled by those same doubts.
Straying From the Party Line: Unclear Goals in In a Lonely Place
  • Deviation: The hero’s goals aren’t clear and he’s not the person working the hardest to solve the problem.
  • The Potential Problem: Like Casablanca, Bogart once again plays his cards close to the chest, coyly prevaricating about what his character’s goals are. Does he want this adaptation job or not? Does he just want quick cash or is he determined to make art? Does he want to clear his name or does he actually want to implicate himself (out of a perverse impulse for self-destruction)? We never know for sure. And of course we aren’t sure until the end whether or not he killed one of our characters! 
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. Like The Shining (also about a potentially-homicidal author), this movie pulls off a tricky relay-race. Dix is only occasionally interested in solving his own problem, and when he loses interest, Laurel and his detective friend Frank take up the slack, trying to solve his problems for him (Laurel tries to get Dix to face his anger issues, Frank tries to clear Dix’s name). Writer Andrew Solt and director Nicholas Ray deftly bounce our identification back and forth between Dix and Laurel, symbolizing her vacillating loyalty and his faltering sense of self-preservation. 
Straying from the Party Line: Lack of Motivation in Blue Velvet 

Obviously, one reason I’m tackling Blue Velvet is that it’s a more challenging movie than many of the others we’ve looked at, which means that it’s going to contravene the checklist more, so we’ll look at more deviations.  Let's start with these two: 
  • Deviation #1: This is definitely a “Character motivates, plot complicates” movie and it has many potential problems associated with that: Our hero has almost no motivation to get involved in this case: (no one he knows or loves is at risk, he hasn’t been accused of the crime, etc.), he has no reason not to trust the police (they seem trustworthy and competent for most of the movie, and they seem to already know the information he uncovers)
  • The Problem: Stories tend to work better when the hero is forced into the story by external plot complications, then in the second half, as the plot becomes less important, the hero’s volatile character chemistry begins to drive the situation. This movie is the opposite: the hero’s volatile psychology wills the situation into existence with very little motivation, and this only becomes a problem in the second half when he realizes how complex the plot is.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. This movie works as both a tragedy (where we lament the downfall of a self-destructive person) and a conspiracy thriller (where we root for the hero to uncover the truth). We both cheer for him to solve the mystery and disapprove of the moral degradation he experiences as he does so. We remain invested in seeing the problem solved even after we acknowledge that our hero is part of the problem, and he’s victimizing this woman as much as saving her. 
This leads us to:
  • Deviation #2: It’s unclear if he’s the only one who could solve this problem.
  • The Problem: The movie sort of hedges its bets on this problem. For most of the running time, we suspect that the cops could handle this better on their own without Jeffrey’s involvement (which should be death for the story), but as Act 3 begins, we have a more typical movie development: Jeffrey finds out that one of the bad guys is a detective, and decides once again that it’s all up to him.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. In theory, we should get fed up with Jeffrey and insist on rooting for the cops, who we trust more to solve this case, but our interest in seeing the case solved is co-equal with our interest in understanding Jeffrey’s creepy psychology, so we’re willing stay with him (and then they finally reveal that a cop is on it, which is a more traditional way of getting us to root for him to solve it on his own. But even then the chief seems to be taking appropriate steps, though we can’t tell for sure.) 

Straying From The Party Line: The Many Potential Problems with Guardians of the Galaxy
  • The hero is motivated by money for most of the movie, and even when he does decide to ditch the money and become a true hero, the heroic motivation is too small because he decides to save a planet that is not his own, nor is it the home planet of any of the Guardians. Why should he or we care about Glenn-Close-world? It’s bizarre that the movie remains compelling. The filmmakers must have been tempted to replace these weak motivations with a more straightforward emotion goal, such as searching for his missing father, or trying to avenge his dead mother, but the movie goes precisely the other way. In fact, you could say they break another rule: Instead of simplifying the motivation they multiply it: Pratt’s primary motivation is money, but his secondary motivation is something that seems equally superficial, but isn’t: he want to be cool. His social humiliation is delivered right away when he announces he’s Star-Lord and Djimon Hounsou says “Who?” (Nicely paid off when the same character later warns his boss, “That’s Star-Lord!”) This seemingly shallow goal becomes deeply heartfelt because we see how closely tied it is to his severed relationship with both parents. His hapless attempts to be cool ultimately are an attempt to search for his dad and bring his mother back. Threading that tricky emotional needle was a big part of this movie’s unexpected success.
  • But wait, here’s another violation: The concept seems to be too complicated. The interplanetary politics of this world are bizarrely labyrinthine, and after the very-relatable first scene we suddenly jump into the middle of a complicated story that we never quite catch up with, so why doesn’t this alienate the audience (literally and figuratively) as badly as Pacific Rim? Obviously, beginning in a recognizable place goes a long way, allowing us to step into this world with the hero, at least briefly, but beyond that, the movie greatly benefits from a rule hidden inside this post: the value of “I’ll tell you later” Guardians pushes this to its extreme, because this was basically one big movie of “I’ll tell you later.” The filmmakers use weirdness as wallpaper, much in the same way that Star Wars does, but they never ask us to care about that stuff any more than the hero does (and he’s wonderfully dismissive of most of it.)
This movie puts a very human hero in a very weird galaxy and allows us to hang on tightly to the hero’s emotional throughline as everything else goes crazy. You don’t have to believe in any of this craziness, you just have to believe in him. Pacific Rim does the opposite: It quickly becomes clear that those filmmakers care more about the concept than the characters, which makes it impossible for the audience to care about either.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Desperate horniness and loneliness.

Alien

YES. Company loyalty, then self-preservation.

An Education

YES. She’s bored out of her mind, as established by the opening montage.

The Babadook

YES. save her son and herself.

Blazing Saddles

YES. He just wants to save his own life until almost the end.

Blue Velvet

NO.  He has no obvious motivation to investigate this case.  We have to surmise that his actions are motivated by a deep-seated neurosis that predates the movie.

The Bourne Identity

YES.

Bridesmaids

YES. She wants to do a good job to keep Lillian as a friend.

Casablanca

YES. All of these except simple: First, he wants to keep the peace with the Nazis, then he (maybe) wants to use the letters of transit himself, then he wants his ex back.

Chinatown

NO. Not really.  For most of the movie, he has no client, and he has little reason for uncovering this conspiracy. We’ll discuss this more. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Well, it’s pretty selfless: take down the mob, but he’s clearly enjoying getting away from his family and going dark, in more ways than one.

Do the Right Thing

YES. He tries to bridge the communities not because he’s a good guy, but because he wants $250 a week plus tips. 

The Farewell

YES. She loves her grandma and wants to tell her the truth, but ultimately chooses not to. 

The Fighter

Sort of, he wants to be a champion, but he’ll sacrifice his chances to make money for his family.  In the end, though, he realizes that that’s a sickness, and the best way to help them is to pursue his own self-interest.

Frozen

YES. save her sister.

The Fugitive

YES. Very much so.  He’s determined to find his wife’s killer and he’ll be executed if he doesn’t do it. 

Get Out

YES. His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.

Groundhog Day

YES. He desperately wants to get out of the loop, since he’s in his least favorite place on his least favorite day.

How to Train Your Dragon

NO. His motivation is complex.  His initial motivation, to impress his father, is all of those things, but he loses all of that motivation as soon as he befriends Toothless, then he’s uncertain of his own goal for a while, then he forms a relatively selfless motivation of making peace, but he uses his knowledge to continue to impress the village while he tries to figure out how to do that, so his motivation is definitely more complex than most heroes, which is fine. It’s an ambitious movie.  

In a Lonely Place

NO. it’s complex and contradictory: Does he want the Althea Bruce job or not?  Does he want to write something for quick money or something meaningful?  Is he looking for love?  For sex?  Does he have a death wish? A desire to be imprisoned?  Does he want to deal with his anger issues or not?  Unlike most heroes, he is a man or dark, murky, contradictory impulses.  And yet, we love him and find him utterly compelling.  He’s an exception to the rule.

Iron Man

YES. Just trying to stay alive at first, then trying to get his weaponry away from his captors.

Lady Bird

NO. Her motivation isn’t strong: She strongly wants out of town, but nobody is sure why, including herself.  She waffles about whether she even wants it. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Get his wife a baby.

Rushmore

YES. He wants love, friendship, respect, etc.

Selma

Basically.  We see the horror of the problem in the opening scenes (a woman is turned away from registering to vote, four little girls are killed)  We don’t see these directly provoke him, but we assume that these are driving him.

The Shining

YES. for both.

Sideways

YES. Have a fun drunken week.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Career advancement

Star Wars

YES. Solve R2’s problem before it gets him in trouble.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he wants to keep his car. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

A very special Marvel Reread Club: Interview with Douglas Wolk!

This week, in a break from the show’s usual format, we sit down with Douglas Wolk, the author of “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told” and discuss his monumental achievement of reading every Marvel comic. We have an epic, wide-ranging discussion about what it all means, whether the older comics are primarily art or artifact, and whether you can make something morally coherent out of a story with so many authors representing fundamentally different eras of American history. 

 And for the first time before a national audience, Douglas debuts his delightful ukulele theme song!

Friday, November 19, 2021

Marvel Reread Club on Monday!

Hey guys,I’m going to start posting the podcasts on Monday to see if we can get more interaction. This was supposed to start this Monday, but of course that one posted late, on Tuesday. We have a Marvel Reread Club ready to post today but we’re going to hold onto it over the weekend and post it Monday.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Episode 34: Building Character Voice

Welcome back! This week, James and I discuss the very things we’ve been talking about recently here on the blog: Metaphor Families, Default Personality Traits, and Default Argument Tactics. James quotes great wisdom forgetting that he’s quoting me, and I heap praise on James’s new book Dare to Know—It’s a kumbaya love fest!

And hey, here’s the facial expression generator from Scott McCloud’s “Making Comics” that I love and James doesn’t!

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have a default argument tactic?

Similar to the default personality trait is the default argument tactic. As with the personality, tactics can greatly transform over the course of a story. Frequently, heroes will start off the story naïve and overconfident, using half-ass strategies because they’ve never been seriously challenged. As the heroes face up to the challenge, they will gain skills, hone weapons, and figure out how to accomplish things. 

Nevertheless, each character should have a default argument tactic throughout. Your characters will gain more and more arrows in their quiver over the course of the story, but they will always instinctively reach for this arrow first, from beginning to end. In any given encounter, it is only when this tactic fails that they will move on to another.

This is one of the least perceptible aspects of personality. You probably don’t think of yourself or your friends as having default argument tactics, but if you think about it now, you might realize that each one does. Start there, instead of with movies or books: Listen to the people in your life and how they instinctively try to win arguments.

We identified metaphor families using 30 Rock characters, so for default strategies, let’s look at that show’s former Thursday night companion, the equally brilliant Community. Let’s say you’re withholding a secret from a member of the Greendale Community College study group. How will they try to get it out of you?
  • Jeff: He tries to trap you with the evidence of your lies in a lawyerly manner. 
  • Abed: He poses faux naïve questions, noticing little details and psychological “tells” in your answers. 
  • Annie: She asks genuine naïve questions, persistently interrogating until she gets the truth. 
  • Troy: He halfheartedly attempts to lay logic traps and ensnare you with your own words. 
  • Shirley: She passive-aggressively guilt-trips you. 
  • Britta: She accuses you of hypocrisy, inconsistency, or a general lack of morality. 
  • Pierce: He doesn’t strategize; he just insults. Unsurprisingly, he’s the most unlikable character. 
These strategies tend to have some overlap with the characters’ metaphor families or default personality traits. Jeff, Shirley, and Britta have strategies that relate to their backgrounds (lawyer, evangelical Christian, hippie). Abed’s strategy is related to his psychology (Asperger’s syndrome). Annie, Troy, and Pierce, on the other hand, use strategies that match up to their default personality traits (sweet, geeky, and arrogant, respectively).

In dramas, the characters will be less broadly sketched but still use distinctive default strategies—silence or verbosity, sexuality or piousness, logic or emotion, etc. A character with a consistent tactic will be far more believable.


Straying from the Party Line: Chris’s Lack of Metaphor Family, Argument Tactic, Strong Motivation, Goals, Insistence, and Decision-Making Ability in “Get Out”

So according to our checklist, Chris seems like a rather deficient hero in Get Out. Let’s look at at all the character tests he fails:

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Just very slightly.  He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically.  He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigarette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.   
And is the hero willing to let others know that they lack his most valuable quality, subtly or directly?
He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Absolutely none, as Dean jokingly points out.  And she drove, so he can’t leave without her approval. 
In the commentary, Peele points out something interesting:
  • “I could talk all day about how amazing Daniel [Kaluuya, who plays Chris,] is. I mean, at some point we realized, y’know, Chris doesn’t have very many lines in this. And it’s true. His role is to just kinda get out of here without the shit hitting the fan. You know even in these scenes here [taking abuse from Jeremy at dinner] he’s just trying to minimize the awkwardness and make it through the weekend and get out, so that’s why he’s not gonna pop off, and of course, he’s in love, so we understand why you’re on your best behavior at your love’s parents’ house.”
Chris is told by Dean early on that his role as boyfriend is to say “She’s right, I’m wrong,” as often as possible, but of course there’s a racial component to that as well. Chris is expected to say that to every white person. When the cop arrives, the black man is in deadly peril, but the white girl has power over the cop, which she happily flexes.

As I say above, Chris shows more personality in his brief conversations with Rod than with anyone else. Long before he gets sent to the sunken place, Chris is hiding inside himself, and we understand that, so we still find him compelling in spite of his lack of some of the surface traits we crave. He’s somewhat self-less (but not selfless) and generic, but we sense more under the surface of Kaluuya’s performance, so we don’t reject him.
And it’s essential that we see his great photography at the beginning: the ultimate way to show the soul of the voiceless.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  Inept sarcasm

Alien

YES, cites the rules.

An Education

YES.  Faux naïve, but with a withering use of evidence of the other’s hypocrisy or ignorance.

The Babadook

YES. Meekly assents, then lashes out.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Bizarre zaniness to disarm you, swaggering charm to win you over.

Blue Velvet

YES. Ignoring all disagreement, proceeding with a slight smile.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he puts the ball in your court (for instance, handing her the money before he asks her to decide, then asking her to give it back if she wants to say no.)

Bridesmaids

YES. But not a good one. She gets brittle and defensive, lies badly, makes promises she can’t keep. She also likes to put up a false front.

Casablanca

YES. Tells insultingly bland lies (“I came for the waters.” Q: “Where were you last night?” A: “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”)

Chinatown

YES. Won’t listen, bulldozes over you, nails you with inconsistences and evidense he’s uncovered.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he plays it cool and silent, looks askance at the person, convinces the person that he’s the one who knows what’s going on.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Ignores your protests, then repeats what he said in the first place.

The Farewell

YES. Appeal to Western ethical reasoning.  Tell a lot of lies while insisting others tell the truth. 

The Fighter

YES. Shrugs, gives up, and mutters his dissent

Frozen

YES. Naïve insistence

The Fugitive

YES. He’s clearly not good at making his case verbally.  All he can do is blurt out denials: “I didn’t kill my wife.” He tends to succeed by disappearing, both visually and in other ways: he breaks in by muttering, changes order by scribbling an illegible signature.  Even when he confronts Nichols at the end, he just blurts out the accusations.  So yeah, he has a consistent tactic, it’s just incompetent.

Get Out

NO. Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigrette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.

Groundhog Day

Sort of: petulant complaining. He’s never very good at getting others to do things.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Stammering out a string of excuses until something sticks.

In a Lonely Place

YES. encourages them to talk, lets them hang themselves, then shoots them down swiftly and brutally.  Or he just punches them.

Iron Man

YES. Sarcastic direct assault, “what are you going to do about it”-style. Cuts the other person off with a quick, witty, withering line, then smirks while they try to answer. 

Lady Bird

YES. Mischaracterizes her scene partner: (“I’m sorry I’m not perfect.”) Insists on her own reality if spite of evidence: “What I’d really like is to be on Math Olympiad.” “But math isn’t something that you are terribly strong in.” “That we know of YET.”

Raising Arizona

YES. Folds quickly

Rushmore

YES. Dismissive of all opposition

Selma

YES. With allies he keeps them onboard by talking about the future: With his wife: “Look here, I’m going to a pastor somewhere soon, college town…maybe the occasional speaking engagement…”  With Johnson, on the other hand, he rejects all talk of the future and talks only about the present.

The Shining

YES. Jack is mock-jocular, accusatory and condescending. “Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?” He keeps quizzing each about the other for fuel to use against them. 

Sideways

YES. Traps people. / emotional blackmail “Did you like the new ending?” “Yes.” “Everything after page 750 is exactly the same.” / “Just wanted to let you know I’m not coming to the wedding.”

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Listens closely, picks apart holes in your story, uses your own argument against you.

Star Wars

YES. Ineffective disputation

Sunset Boulevard

YES. slipperiness, he deflects all conflict.